Switch glitch

Tennessee’s switch to online testing starts rough as platform crashes on Day One

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Computers line a classroom at Aspire Hanley Elementary in Memphis as schools prepared to make the switch to online assessments for state achievement tests.

On the first day of online testing in Tennessee schools, a network outage forced students to stop taking the state’s new achievement test, causing a delay in the much-anticipated rollout of the TNReady exam.

Major outages occurred statewide at 8:25 a.m. CST on the MIST platform developed by Measurement Inc., the North Carolina-based company that created the test, according to an email to superintendents from state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“These outages were caused because the network utilized by Measurement Inc. experienced a failure,” McQueen wrote. “We are urgently working with Measurement Inc. to identify the causes and correct the problem. At this time, we are advising that schools experiencing problems with the test discontinue testing, and return to their normal classes. Please do not begin any new additional testing you had planned for today until the department provides further information.

Due to a lengthy testing window that began on Monday and continues through March 4, it’s unclear how many schools were impacted statewide.

However, in Nashville, 30 schools were administering the test on Monday and six reported glitches, according to Joe Bass, a spokesman for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Students who had not yet encountered technological difficulties were told to finish the assessment.

District leaders stressed to teachers and parents that the outages were not due to local technology problems. McQueen told superintendents that Measurement Inc. was aware of the problem.

Technology troubles have plagued several states in recent years in the transition to online testing, causing mistrust over the validity of scores and testing platforms.

As word spread about Monday’s outages, critics of the new test — and the inclusion of data from the tests in teacher evaluations — quickly cited the technology glitches as an indictment of the State Department of Education.

#TNReady crashes statewide … is TDOE still perplexed why boards across the state are asking for grace for teachers and kids from scores?” Knox County school board member Amber Rountree tweeted upon learning the news.

Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray quickly blasted the state Education Department’s handling of the transition, citing concerns about the state’s capacity to accommodate so many students on the server at one time, as well as concerns about local districts having enough resources to complete the testing.

“It is unacceptable to have this kind of statewide failure when the state has tied so many high-stakes decisions to the results of this assessment,” Gray said. “Our students and teachers have enough stress and anxiety around these assessments without adding additional worries about technical issues.

Gray called on the state to grant at least a one-year waiver from including TNReady scores in teacher evaluations, although state officials have said that districts have discretion whether they choose to use that data this year on personnel decisions.

Last week, Department of Education officials told reporters they were prepared for widespread technology difficulties.

Chief Information Officer Cliff Lloyd said that he wasn’t as concerned about major failures such as servers crashing. “Those big things are easy to fix,” he said at the time. “I’m worried about small things that can occur on certain operating systems in certain conditions.”

As part of the state’s contingency plans, districts can request paper-based tests if technical problems persist and also can administer TNReady later than the state-assigned testing window.

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County

ACT bump

Tennessee sees ACT gains after becoming first state to fund retakes for all students

Last fall, Tennessee became the nation’s first state to pay for its students to retake the ACT college entrance exam.

On Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the investment paid off.

Nearly 26,000 students in the Class of 2017 opted to participate in the state’s first ACT Senior Retake Day in October. Of those, nearly 40 percent got higher scores. And about 5 percent — 1,331 students in all — raised their composite above the 21 necessary to receive the state’s HOPE Scholarship, which provides up to $16,000 toward in-state tuition.

The ACT retake also resulted in more students hitting the ACT college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects, an area where Tennessee has struggled. The percentage of students meeting all four benchmarks increased from 21.5 percent to 26.8 percent.

Additionally, over a third of school districts increased their ACT average, with the best gains in Maryville City, which increased its composite average by a full point.

Under the initiative, the State Department of Education paid the fees for students to take the test for a second time in hopes of boosting their scores and chances for college scholarships.

“Our goal is to open more doors for students after high school, and these results are one more step toward that vision,” McQueen said. “We want students to graduate from high school with the ability to access whatever path they want to explore, and we know too often low ACT scores create a barrier.”

The retake day cost the state $760,000. ACT provided an additional $353,000 in fee waivers for low-income students.

Gov. Bill Haslam has included money to continue the program in his budget proposal for 2017-18.